Evan Berry: Limited minutes, many thrills

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

Evan Berry gets a few more opportunities to show what he can do. He has worked out a deal with the Cleveland Browns. They need help. He needs help.

Berry, one of Tennessee’s best ever in hauling the ball upfield, didn’t get many chances in what could have been a tremendous college career. Injuries were the restrictors.

In his four years, Berry was on the field for a few seconds when the Volunteers were receiving kickoffs. He got his hands on 53. He accumulated 1820 return yards and four touchdowns. He set a school record for return average – 34.3. He reminded us of long ago Willie Gault.

Berry played a few minutes now and then as a reserve safety. He intercepted a pass in the closing seconds of the Outback Bowl against Northwestern and ran it back 100 yards, untouched by human hands.

With guidance from fans and sportswriters, Tennessee coaches gave Evan a try on offense. He lost six yards.  He thinks he could be a wide receiver in the NFL. He might generate excitement if he can get the ball with a step head start.

As a Vol freshman, Berry hinted of exciting things to come. His first return, against Chattanooga, was an athletic, change-of-direction 68 yarder to begin the second half. It caused considerable noise and led to a touchdown.

He explained that it really was his first. He had wanted to return kicks in high school, at Canton, Ga.

“I thought I might be good at it.”

His coach vetoed the idea. Evan was too valuable as quarterback.

Berry had a great sophomore season, 2015, at Tennessee. He led the nation with a 38.3 average. He tied for second nationally with three touchdown returns – against Western Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky.

According to the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and Walter Camp all-America teams, Berry was the best kickoff returner in the country. Football Writers of America, Fox and CBS thought he was second best. The Associated Press dispensed honors elsewhere.

As a junior, Berry hit a big one against South Carolina, 100 yards. He took a hit from Tennessee Tech and was lost for the remainder of the year. Torn ACLs are discouraging for runners.

Berry was never the same. He worked very hard at rehabilitation and made it back for the 2017 opener. He had returns of 35 and 51 against Georgia Tech but missed the next six games.

He reappeared against Kentucky. He broke the opening kickoff for 46 against Southern Miss. His last run was only 11 yards. He was smothered. He suffered serious shoulder damage. Trainers helped him aboard a cart for the last ride to the locker room.

Berry deserved a better ending but he didn’t whine about what might have been.

Butch wasn’t totally to blame for the diminished career. The then coach said all the right things: Intellect. Speed. Elusiveness. Eye discipline (that’s code for looking where he was going, recognizing congestion and making correct reads. Modern autos have some of that equipment).

In fact, Berry goes beyond technical devices. He didn’t win with just speed or unexpected cuts that made opponents miss. Evan does have special vision. On the fly, he could identify weaknesses in coverage units and immediately determine how to exploit them.

“Evan’s a dynamic football player and obviously he’s very special with the ball in his hands,” said Butch Jones in times past. “He can change field position in a hurry. He’s a threat to score every time he gets the ball.

“He has the natural instincts that great returners possess. He has the innate ability to find and hit the hole.”

Note: Jeremy Pruitt never says things like that.

Evan Berry, in his race for fame, did not erase Gault from the UT book of numbers or encroach more than a little on his glamorous reputation. They share the record for most return touchdowns. Gault had 34 more career yards. He had far more opportunities, 78.

Gault had another advantage. He was immortalized in word and song.

“Willie Gault, ladies and gentlemen, is running all the way to the state capitol. Give him six!”

So said John Ward near the end of a touchdown run at Vanderbilt.

Kenny Chesney further dramatized that accomplishment in his historic song, Touchdown Tennessee.

Evan had a few friends knocking people out of the way but received no help from Ward or Chesney.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is [email protected]

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